As I write this column, William & Mary is wrapping up a remarkable fall semester. Our nation is eight months into pandemic and navigating a recession. The timeline for recovery remains unclear. We have yet to discover how we will be transformed.
William & Mary successfully crossed the finish line of our For the Bold campaign, and there is much cause for hope. As you’ll read in this issue, philanthropy from generous donors spurred creativity and new human connections. In 2020, so many gave generously to the Fund for William & Mary and other emergency funds. Your support helped us safeguard our community and sustain our mission.
We enter 2021 knowing the spring will be different too and we are ready to adapt further — in the planful ways that have brought us success so far. In spite of the challenges the university faces, this is a moment to return to strategic thinking and reflect on how higher education will transform in the future. We know there will be no snapback to 2019. The lessons we are learning now about living, learning and working differently have great value. Here are three lessons from the fall that are front of mind.
Flexibility is Essential
Under pandemic, everyone has new responsibilities and cares. Students must invent safe ways to socialize while completing their coursework in new modes. Faculty must change their classrooms, so that students can choose the best learning scenario for themselves. Staff must embrace new roles, adapting campus to safeguard health. Everyone must establish shared norms of mask-wearing and distancing. With all this change, so many must care for loved ones as they work and learn.
Universities are not known for flexibility. Yet flexible paths, policies and approaches have been a key to our success this fall. William & Mary offered students both in-person and remote learning this fall, seeking to ensure that they stay on track to their degrees. Employees adapted to remote work, teaching and research, to meet our mission. As an organization and as individuals, such flexibility will be essential going forward.
Innovate in Support of Our Graduates
Historically, students who graduate into recession face daunting headwinds. They are at risk for underemployment and diminished professional options. Multiple studies have shown such effects may last a decade or more. Unsurprisingly, the risks are higher for those already facing challenges entering the job market, such as first-generation students, low-income students and student-veterans.
Universities have a responsibility to combat the impacts of recession by expanding opportunity. Scholarships were the top priority in For the Bold. This campaign created most of W&M’s existing scholarships, raising $303 million for scholarships. Under pandemic, we must redouble these efforts to open doors for students to receive an extraordinary education and help them thrive as future citizens and professionals.
William & Mary has also launched innovative programs to create opportunities for incoming students and graduates. A $10-million gift from an anonymous alumna established the W&M VET program, which aims to accelerate the transition of military and veteran students into leadership roles in civilian jobs. This year, W&M is first in the nation to launch a new partnership with the Posse Foundation — to award scholarships to talented underrepresented and low-income students recruited from across a single state. Building on the lessons learned under pandemic, these Posse cohorts will convene virtually, from multiple cities.
Kindness and Humility Sustain Us Through Uncertainty
The pandemic has shown us how deeply we rely on one another. Mutual care and respect were constant themes of the fall. Students, faculty and staff upheld our Healthy Together guidelines with dedication. Thanks to shared effort and mutual respect, we have thus far avoided the closures and large-scale quarantines witnessed at universities around the nation.
We are incredibly grateful to our neighbors for joining us. Williamsburg City Council voted to adopt William & Mary’s Healthy Together Commitment. As a result, we have seen COVID-19 positivity rates drop significantly in our locality, from the August high through the fall semester.
We approach spring semester planning with humility. Around the nation, the public health forecast is worsening as I write. We must constantly assess new data, rely on collaboration and feedback and hold to our core principles. Our true north remains: to safeguard health with every tool available so as to deliver on our mission.
As William & Mary reflects on lessons learned, we welcome your insights. The Alma Mater of the Nation has rallied to support one another in remarkable ways over the past year. We are up to the challenges ahead.